Barnier says Brexit will come at a cost but ‘we are where we are’

Brexit chief negotiator pledges full EU support for Ireland

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, addresses the Houses of the Oireachtas

 

Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier has pledged full EU support for Ireland in the negotiations leading to the UK’s withdrawal in an address to the Dáil and Seanad.

“Today, in front of the two Houses, I want to reassure the Irish people, in this negotiation Ireland’s interest will be the union’s interest,’’ he said.

He said Ireland and the EU were together and an united EU would be there for Ireland.

He said that because of its historical and geographical ties with the UK, shared border and strong economic links, Ireland was in an unique position.

With the fall of sterling, Brexit would impact on Irish exports to the UK, particularly in the agrifood sector.

Many in Ireland feared the return of tensions in the North, he added.

He said Brexit would come at a cost.

“I am fully aware that some member states will be more affected than others,” he said.

He added as chief negotiator his objective was to reach a fair outcome.

Mr Barnier said he regretted Brexit was happening and he would have preferred if it was otherwise.

“But we are where we are,” he added.

Hard border

He said Ireland had complemented and strengthened the EU.

Mr Barnier said EU integration helped to remove borders which once existed on maps and in minds.

Now, Brexit threatened challenged borders within the EU, but he would work with Ireland to avoid a hard border, he said.

“The UK’s departure from the EU will have consequences,’’ he added.

“We have a duty to speak the truth.’’

He said customs controls were part of the EU border management to protect the single market, food safety and standards.

“But, as I have said many times, nothing in these negotiations should put peace at risk,’’ he added.

Mr Barnier said it had been recognised by the 27 heads of state and governments two weeks ago that the Belfast Agreement must be respected in all its dimensions.

“I also made very clear that the border issue would be one of my three priorities for the first phase of the negotiations, together with citizens’ rights and the financial settlement,’’ he added.

Mr Barnier said sufficient progress had to be made on those points before discussing the future of the EU’s relationship with the UK.

“And the sooner this will happen, the better,’’ he added.

“If the conditions are right, a close partnership with the UK is in everybody’s interest.’’

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Border poll

Taoiseach Enda Kenny re-iterated the Government’s priorities in the negotiations on Brexit - “to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, including by avoiding a hard border; to retain the Common Travel Area; to minimise the impact on our economy; and to work for a positive future for the European Union”.

Mr Kenny stressed the Government’s defence of the Belfast Agtreement throughout the process to date “making clear that, as a legally-binding, international Treaty, it provides a unique political and constitutional framework on the island of Ireland.

The Taoiseach said: “We knew that it was vital to provide reassurance that Brexit does not undermine any provision of the Good Friday Agreement. In that context, we secured an acknowledgement that, in the event of change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, brought about in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would be part of the EU.”

He referred to the securing of an acknowledgement that, in the event of change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, “brought about in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would be part of the EU”.

Mr Kenny also stressed however that now was not the time for a border poll

The Taoiseach highlighted the extensive work the State had done and since the UK referendum last June, Ireland had more than 400 engagements on Brexit with EU partners.

He said the Government had emphasised the need to avoid the re-imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. “As I have said before, this is a political challenge and we will have to be flexible and imaginative in our efforts to find solutions.”

Sensitive question

The Taoiseach welcomed the “approach to the sensitive question of the UK’s financial liabilities”.

He reiterated that “Brexit is a British policy. It is not an Irish policy or an EU policy. For its part, Ireland remains committed to the EU,” and he said a poll this week showed 88 per cent of Irish people wanted to remain part of the EU.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin warned that new EU legal measures are likely to be necessary to deal with Northern Ireland, the Common Travel Area and economic adjustments.

He said that a form of special status should be considered in the Brexit negotiations. “There are many models of special economic zones in the world which could be adapted.”

But he warned that the commitment to protect the Common Travel Area was referenced in a treaty protocol that “is essentially meaningless once the UK leaves the Union because Ireland’s rights are defined in terms of its relations with another contracting partner to the treaty.

“This raises what may be a fundamental practical issue with the negotiations - which is the status of the agreement which emerges.”

Status quo

The guidelines limit what can be agreed to measures which conform to the existing EU legal order and laws.

He told Mr Barnier: “We hope you will be willing to recommend new legislative acts where these may be required.”

He said the Belfast Agreement establishes structures and policies which are intended to evolve over time. It is not a question of having either the status quo or reunification.

“In fact the real spirit of the agreement is to be found in provisions which allow for greater shared action over time in important practical matters.”

He said “whatever is agreed in the negotiations must do nothing to undermine the ability to allow shared, cross-border institutions and action to develop”, including tourism, trade and EU funding.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said while the Brexit negotiating guidelines recognised the special position of Northern Ireland, they did not sufficiently recognise the unique challenges faced by people south of the Border.

“Because Brexit means that, for us, the idea of achieving the European single market has been set back a generation or more,’’ he added.

“Bluntly, once the UK leaves, it will no longer make any real, practical, day-to-day sense to talk about our membership- of a single market in relation to the goods and services that we import and export.’’

Land frontier

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that the aim of the European Union should be to prevent a land frontier between the EU and Britain on the island of Ireland.

“To achieve these goals, the North of Ireland should be afforded designated special status within the EU,” he said.

Mr Adams also told Mr Barnier that “Ireland should also have a veto on any agreement reached between the EU and the British Government that does not include this position.

The Louth TD said designated special status was the best and only way to ensure that the entire island of Ireland remains within the European Union.

“It is an imaginative solution that addresses the complexities of the problem. It does not affect the constitutional status of the North.”

Mr Adams said that would only be changed by a referendum and his party would like to see a referendum on unity within the next five years.

“Special status would ensure the North’s trading relationship with the rest of Ireland and the EU - particularly in relation to business, tourism, the all-Ireland energy market, agriculture and agri-foods - will be maintained.

“It is about protecting the rights of citizens in the North, who have a right to Irish citizenship, and therefore to citizenship of the EU.”

Mr Adams said “Sinn Féin would like a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years.”

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett questioned Mr Barnier’s commitment. “Can we trust you with the issues of international solidarity and the free movement of people as they pertain to Europe or this country?” he asked.

He said Ireland was subjected through EU measures to “cruel and vicious austerity on hundreds of thousands of our citizens, leaving us with the worst homelessness crisis” in the State’s history. He said the EU fiscal rules of which Mr Barnier were a significant architect, “crippled” Ireland.

“Will you guarantee that Europe will not not break up the Common Travel Area? Will you guarantee that the EU will not impose a hard border between the North and South?” he asked. “Will you give us a vote in this country on the final deal in the negotiations between the EU and the UK?”

He said if Mr Barnier could not give those guarantees, “all the noble aspirations mean very little indeed”.

Migration policy

Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger said what Mr Barnier represented had more in common with the Tories in the UK because “both camps want bargain basement societies’’.

She said the EU had a migration policy which US president Donald Trump would be envious of, while the big business dominated EU agenda consistently undermined the living standards of the majority.

Independent TD Thomas Pringle said he did not think the EU had a history of having the interests of the Irish people at heart. “Hopefully, through the negotiations on Brexit, an outcome can be achieved that will change that,’’ he added.

Independent Senator Michael McDowell said Mr Barnier had pointed out the need for “imaginative and flexible’’ solutions to protect the people of Ireland socially, economically and politically.

“That acknowledgement is very welcome,’’ he added. “But I believe that it also lays down a challenge not merely at the level of government but right across the entire range of civil society on this island to explore, assess and propose real solutions to the adverse consequences of Brexit.’’

Mr McDowell said no institution or government had a monopoly on imagination or flexibility.

Independent Senator Alice Mary Higgins sought an assurance from Mr Barnier that there would be no militarisation of Ireland’s border with the UK, as had happened in other external borders.

She said there should be no attempt to press ahead with any further development of an EU military that could risk or compromise Ireland’s neutrality, which was of deep and valuable importance to the State and its citizens and our international role in peace-building.

Ms Higgins stressed the importance of maintaining human rights standards and the protection of policies agreed in areas such as employment, equality and the environment.

“A race to the bottom is a race nobody wins,’’ she added.